20 lower high school students, and a group of upper high school students, are getting ready for a special event on March 24th, 2015. The event, and surrounding days, includes a staged public production of Romeo and Juliet by the students from the upper high school, as well as a competition in the form of a test. The competition centres around British history, with a particular focus on the life, legacy, and literature of William Shakespeare.
Did I mention that the students are from Southern Poland? More specifically, the region of Nowy Sacz.
It is incredible how this changes the story. Talk to students in the English speaking world, and the study of Shakespeare is completely ordinary. And of course, Shakespeare is celebrated beyond the English world, but he is not as ubiquitous a presence on the high school curriculum. This is why the Rev. Prof. Jozef Tischner Technical Upper Secondary and Vocational Schools (the school performing Romeo and Juliet) and the others are holding this competition. Of course this goes a long way to supporting students in their learning of a foreign language (English), but it also exposes them them, through written and performance aspects, to an international cultural icon.
We don’t often associate Poland and Shakespeare. Dromio of Syracuse mentions the Polish winter once in Comedy of Errors when describing Nell, his supposed wife:
Marry, sir, she’s the kitchen wench and all grease, and I know not what use to put her to but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light. I warrant, her rags and the tallow in them will burn a Poland winter.
Despite this lack of textual connection, a school for English actors was established in Gdarisk, Poland as early as the 17th century – and Shakespeare came with it. A new Shakespeare theatre opened in Gdarisk last summer – and so the students of the Nowy Sacz region are participating in a Shakespeare renaissance in Poland.
Of course, the spread of Shakespeare is exciting to me: I do what I can to promote his works. But here’s what interests me, and perhaps frustrates me, about this story. I can’t, without the use of Google, or a library, name a single Polish playwright. I’m sure there’s a great list out there, but I was never exposed to them. Indeed, as a Canadian student, if I wanted to be exposed to any literature outside of North America, the UK, or France, I would have to seek outside of school. Shakespeare is wonderful, but he is an English staple in an English curriculum. What these Polish schools are doing is fascinating not just because they are studying, competing for the knowledge of, and celebrating Shakespeare – but because they are engaging with another language and another culture – broadening their horizons for the sake of knowledge itself. I think we can all share in their excitement and perhaps take this story as a way to branch out ourselves.
Shakespeare can even be a starting point for we English speakers. If you are an English teacher, challenge your students with Shakespeare scenes they are familiar with, but in Polish (or any other language) and see if they can act it out. Hold your own Shakespeare olympics in your class. Provided you provide a basic alphabet breakdown, it can be a great challenge and a great way to use Shakespeare to broaden cultural horizons.